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August 18, 2005

Prospectus Notebook


by Baseball Prospectus

Cincinnati Reds: Aaron Harang was traded to the National League at the July trade deadline two years ago. Prior to that he'd only stepped up to the plate four times with Oakland--all four ended with strikeouts.

From the mound, Harang has grown into the Reds' best pitcher, by no small margin; currently he's floating around his 90th percentile PECOTA forecast. All his rate stats (H/9 innings, HR/9, BB/9, SO/9) have crept forward, and thus his ERA (3.96) has improved by over a run from his previous career mark.

The problem is, Harang's rotten bat cancels out almost a quarter of the value he brings as a pitcher. From the mound, a 28.6 VORP, tops on the team. From the plate, a -6.3 VORP ranks last among all major league pitchers. In fact, with exactly one total base and zero walks in 58 plate appearances, Harang's slump is historically hacktastic:

Lowest OPS by a pitcher in a season with 50+ AB (120 OPS or lower) since 1972:

YEAR  NAME                 PA   AB    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS
----- -------------------- ---- ---- ------ ------ ------ ------
2005 Aaron Harang          58   56   .018   .018   .018   .036
2004 Doug Davis            71   64   .016   .031   .016   .046
2003 Mark Redman           66   61   .016   .032   .016   .049
2003 Al Leiter             60   53   .019   .055   .019   .073
1988 Don Carman            71   63   .048   .048   .048   .095
1973 Ross Grimsley         86   79   .051   .051   .051   .101
1990 Oil Can Boyd          71   59   .051   .051   .051   .102
1983 Mike Torrez           74   65   .046   .061   .046   .107
1993 Charlie Hough         70   63   .032   .076   .032   .108
1984 Ed Whitson            68   61   .049   .065   .049   .114
1996 Mark Clark            81   69   .043   .056   .058   .114
1972 Bill Hands            66   57   .018   .097   .018   .114
2004 Brad Penny            52   51   .059   .059   .059   .118
2005 Chris Carpenter       67   56   .036   .083   .036   .119
1996 Bob Tewksbury         76   65   .031   .074   .046   .120

To boot, Harang's little funk includes a current 0-for-47 skid. He strikes out more than Russ Branyan and walks less than Jeff Francoeur.

Analogies were recently removed from SAT tests, but let's brush up on our logic skills anyway. Ready…set…go!


(a) BMX biking : passing a kidney stone
(b) Pat Buchanan : free speech
(c) getting eaten : being a cow
(d) Buicks : road rage
(e) oatmeal bath : chicken pox

While (b) is a tempting option, the correct answer is (c). In both (b) and (c), the former is an unfortunate side effect of the latter; however, Pat Buchanan's banter is an unavoidable byproduct of the First Amendment, while a cow might be used for milk or domesticated by a vegetarian. Similarly, the National League style of play in and of itself is not a bad thing, but the ugly fallout of Aaron Harang swinging a bat is avoidable. Either trade him back to the American League, or jump in a time machine, dial Billy Beane's cell and tell Billy NO--that you'd rather listen to Jose Guillen flap his jaw for two years as your disgruntled fifth outfielder than ever, ever permitting Harang to pick up another piece of lumber.

Quickly moving to the "Baseball Trivia" portion of the SAT's, which team has wrung the most offensive value from their catchers this year? If you guessed the Reds, you're cheating because you're reading about the Reds, but you win a dog biscuit for Schottzie anyway:

Combined VORP For Catchers, Top 10 Teams

Rank  Team   VORP
----- ------ -------
  1    CIN   44.4
  2    BOS   39.1
  3    CLE   29.2
  4    MIN   29.2
  5    CHC   28.7
  6    NYN   26.6
  7    FLO   24.8
  8    SDN   22.9
  9    WAS   22.0
 10    BAL   21.8

Jason LaRue is approaching his 90th percentile PECOTA mark, thanks to increased plate patience and some luck--35 percent of the balls he puts in play are falling for hits. And recently the similarities between Javier Valentin and Jason Varitek are compelling: both are switch hitters, they're hitting at about the same clip, and according to sources, Javier Valentin is actually Spanish for Jason Varitek. Valentin's season is surprising in the Greg Myers-Bob Brenly-Alan Ashby sort of way.

LaRue    308 260 71 20  0 10 30 76 .273 .374 .465 24.6   15   1
Valentin 166 142 41  9  0 10 22 25 .289 .384 .563 20.5    5  -2

Considering the dual firepower from behind the plate, Harang's futility with the stick, and the overcrowding that perpetually benches either Wily Mo Pena or Austin Kearns, there may not be a team in the National League that would benefit from the designated hitter more than the Cincinnati Reds.

--Dave Haller

Milwaukee Brewers: The 2005 Brew Crew will finish out of the cellar in the NL Central for the first time in four years, and at 58-62 through Tuesday's action, Milwaukee is on pace to collect 78 wins, 11 more than last year and the highest team total since 1997. Let's check in to see how some of Doug Melvin's moves as general manager have locked the Brewers into a steady ascent towards their first winning season since 1992:

  • The Podsednik for Lee Swap: The Brewers are scoring 4.48 runs per game this season, up from 3.94 last year. Much of that improvement can be attributed to having turned Scott Podsednik, whose offensive numbers in '04 (.674 OPS, -0.106 MLVr) should have had Bernie Brewer heading for the bat rack, into Carlos Lee, whose bad attitude hasn't stopped him from hitting .265/.329/.510 in the middle of the Milwaukee order. From a corner outfielder, that's certainly not a world beating line, but consider that Lee is at .309/.377/.590 in 139 AB with runners in scoring position. That fortuitous split has helped Lee knock in 65 of his teammates (RBI-HR), most in the National League, and post a 0.179 RBI/runner rate, best on the Brewers and eighth highest in the senior circuit, meaning Lee has helped the Milwaukee offense a good deal more than his 0.147 MLVr would indicate. Should the Brewers pick up his $8.5 million option for 2006? The decision is not clear, although, for the record, Lee's prodigious 2005 RBI rate is not an isolated event--he put up 0.201 RBI/runner in 2003, and 0.195 in 1999, his rookie year. For his career, El Caballo has driven in 0.175 per baserunner, a figure not far under his 2005 mark.

    From the press Podzilla and his 54 steals have gotten this season (Sports Illustrated was the latest to weigh in), you'd think he was the centerpiece of a juggernaut attack. That's far from the case--even gobs of heists can't cancel out a -0.115 MLVr, and with only 7.7 runs of VORP in 433 plate appearances, Podsednik is a slump (or a groin pull) away from replacement level at the plate. The only evidence that his speed helps win games is in the outfield, where Podsednik has racked up 10 fielding runs above average in left. However, given the variability of defensive performance--Podsednik was below average in center last year for Milwaukee, while Lee was 14 runs above average in left in '04 before dipping to -8 so far this year--the trade was still a superb one for the Brewers.

  • Rescuing Davis: On July 10, 2003, the Blue Jays designated Doug Davis for assignment after having claimed him off waivers from the Rangers in April. Up to that point Davis had thrown 404 innings in the majors, mostly with Texas, compiling substandard rates of 5.32 K/9 and 3.99 BB/9. After opting for free agency, Davis signed with Milwaukee, beginning what can now be deemed a second career. From mid-2003 to the present, Davis has struck out 7.39 per nine and walked 3.67 per nine in 422.3 innings, transforming from a quad-A drifter to an asset in the rotation. Although Davis has regressed from 2004's career year, he has bumped his strikeout rate for the second straight season, and leads Brewers starters (including Ben Sheets) with 8.08 K/9.

    Davis, who joined Milwaukee just as his peak years were beginning, was surely aided by the move from facing the DH at Arlington (2002-04 park factor of 1067) to the friendlier confines of Miller Park (997), but it appears above all he simply learned how to pitch. Melvin made the find even better by signing Davis to a below market value extension through 2006 last summer. Assuming he makes 33 starts in '05, Davis will earn $3.2 million next season, after making $2.35 this year. Paying less than a million per win over replacement player certainly aids Milwaukee's drive to reach the postseason for the first time since 1982.

  • The Sexson Haul: The Brewers dealt slugger Richie Sexson to Arizona before the 2004 season, a year before he became a free agent, for Junior Spivey (who they flipped to Washington this year for Tomo Ohka), Chris Capuano, and Lyle Overbay, among others. Even if Milwaukee decides not to pay Overbay in arbitration, it can trade him or let him walk following two solid years which will have nicely bridged the gap to the Prince Fielder era. Capuano, however, looks to be the long-term keeper of the bunch. He leads all Milwaukee pitchers with 30.1 VORP, and has dropped his ERA by over a run from 2004. Although that improvement is exaggerated--his strikeout rate is down from last season, and he's been hit lucky, holding batters to 200 points less of OPS with runners on than with none on--Capuano has shown signs he is regaining full command of his arsenal after 2002 Tommy John surgery, cutting his home runs to 1.17 per nine from 1.83 last season. At worst, Capuano is a steady league average performer who won't be arbitration eligible until after the '06 season, and his minor league numbers--0.56 HR/9, 8.41 K/9 in 453.7 innings--suggest he could be Sheets' wing man for the long term.

--Caleb Peiffer

Seattle Mariners: Recently, we have been focused on the ascension of Felix Hernandez. So far, it's good to be the King, but it's not good to be any other Mariners pitcher. Looking at the VORP for Pitchers report, we see that the Mariners' best pitcher, Jamie Moyer, ranked a lowly 70th entering Tuesday's action. Only the Pirates, Royals, and Rockies had worse top ranking pitchers. To make matters worse, the A's and Angels have 7 and 5 pitchers who rank ahead of Moyer, respectively. This might look a little different had the Mariners been able to utilize Eddie Guardado a bit more often. And therein lies the problem.

While pitching has been a problem for the 2005 M's, it has not been catastrophic, and having Hernandez up with the big boys should help. The real failing has been the offense, which in terms of AEqR ranks a paltry 24th in the majors. The off-season activity signaled the front office's faith in their two key acquisitions, Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, to lead the offensive charge. How have these acquisitions worked out? Well, as Smooth Jimmy Apollo would say, "when you're right 52 percent of the time, you're wrong 48 percent of the time". Beltre is simply not holding up his end of the bargain, which was foreseen by Emperor Joe Sheehan mere hours after Beltre became Nintendo of America employee #5.

Beltre made contact a lot more often in 2004, and luckily for him those balls seemed to find the grass or the stands more than they found a glove. His K/PA rate was at its lowest, .132, in 2004. This year it's back up to .164, and as a result, not only is Beltre's batting average suffering but he also stands a good shot at topping his career high for strikeouts in one season (105).

Beltre's speed has disappeared in 2005 as well. He has only two steals, fewer than the man with no knees, Preston Wilson. Now, this by itself isn't troubling. For example, if Beltre has 37 homers like Andruw Jones instead of his current 15, no one would care that he only had two steals. And while steals do not paint the full picture, looking at Beltre's Speed Scores we can see the decline is real:

Year(s)     Speed Score
1998-2004   5.094
2005        4.204

Looking at the five factors the largest difference is in Beltre's SpS1 score, which is based on stolen base %. There may be sample size issues there, but that is sort of an indictment in and of itself. Beltre has had 87 opportunities to swipe a bag this year, and has only run twice.

The silver lining lies in Beltre's defense. Looking at the Mariner DT card team page, we can see that Beltre ranks second on the squad using either FRAR or FRAA. On the strength of this defense, Beltre does have a shot at being a 5 win player this year. But so what?

Calculating Beltre's Marginal Revenue Product (MRP), we see that his current 3.4 WARP1 total equals $7.28 million in value, and if he does indeed finish as a five win player, the M's still will not be getting the best bang for their buck. Beltre's average annual value equals $12.8 million, and it is unlikely he will be worth that much in 2005. To make matters worse, it was generally perceived that the M's got a bargain because they jumped on the Beltre bandwagon so quickly. When viewed in that light, Beltre's contract makes him an even bigger albatross, or Moose to be more specific. With inexpensive options elsewhere on the diamond and a little creativity, things could be okay. Unfortunately for Emerald City inhabitants, okay probably will not be good enough; the deflector shields to a Mariners contender have remained quite operational, and a legion of the AL West's best troops have awaited the Mariners throughout 2005.

--Paul Swydan

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